Colleges connect the textbooks

How colleges are integrating digital textbooks with back-end learning and administrative systems

Imagine a college classroom buzzing with activity: Students conduct research and build presentations using a customized, interactive tool on their laptops. Through the learning management system, the instructor can peek at their work and provide feedback—even to those taking the course online or at a satellite campus.

Suddenly, in the middle of class, the research and presentation tool locks up. Neither students nor instructor can access it from the LMS.

With a little investigating, the instructor learns the LMS has completed an update—and the third-party plug-in the students have been using is no longer compatible. Their presentations are lost, and the instructor’s plans for the next two weeks are shot.

Online exclusive: Digital learning and LMS/SIS providers on integration mishaps

Higher ed leaders say such a scenario isn’t far-fetched. As more textbooks and other learning materials become digitized, institutions regularly face challenges in smoothly integrating all the different resources into the LMS, student information system and other campus networks.

“The process is rarely seamless, and a lot has to do with the resources people choose to use in each class,” says Bernard Bull, vice provost for curriculum and academic innovation at Concordia University Wisconsin.

Sidebar: Content selection from the provider’s perspective

“Some of the most interesting instructional technologies come from small, entrepreneurial, innovative companies, and when the big LMS decides to do an update, all those other instructional technologies may shut down,” Bull says. “It’s equivalent to having all the lights go off and all the doors locked in the middle of your class.”

The integration of digital learning materials into other campus systems has progressed, but challenges remain.

“When solutions integrate well, the students and professors shouldn’t notice any differences between our platforms and the external content,” says Steve Kessinger, director of information services and technology at Bluefield College in Virginia. “Integrations should enhance the educational experience, not be a barrier.”  

Seeking ideal integration

Higher ed leaders know what true integration should look like. For instance, when digital learning materials integrate well, content appears in the LMS interface—not in a new window in a new interface, says Eric Floyd, manager of learning technology solutions at Georgia State University.

Also, identity management within learning systems should be seamless, so that a student never has to log in a second time. Providers may, for example, require students to create unique accounts within their platform and then link that account to another account, Floyd says.

Or their platforms may not integrate identity management at all, requiring students to log in by, say, buying “tokens.”

Content should tie into students’ LMS accounts so they get immediate access when they register for a course, says Julian Allen, senior director of learning innovations at Georgia State. Later, the student can choose to pay for the content if deciding to stay in the course.

“This is especially helpful for students who use financial aid to pay for their books, often receiving their funds after the semester starts,” he says.

While the LMS should provide consistent navigation, the system should also give users a visual indication that they’re in a third party’s content environment. This lets students know which provider to contact for support, Allen says.

In addition, when students take quizzes and other assessments, grades go straight to the LMS gradebook for review by the instructor. Well-integrated content is easy for instructors to edit and share with students.

“When instructors want to review student activities or student performance—such as time spent reading assignments or watching videos—they shouldn’t have to visit multiple environments to get this information,” Allen says. “Instructors should be able to directly contact the students from these interfaces and make comments as they review student dashboards.”

Seamless integration of learning materials also benefits administrators. Each digital content system provides different analytics and student performance measurements, and administrators often don’t know how a particular system’s model works, Allen says.

“These analytics systems are rarely integrated directly into the LMS.”

Purchasing and solution design

Institutions—and individual instructors—must think about integration each time they add a new digital learning resource or tool.

Kessinger of Bluefield says he has met with many providers who claim to integrate with the college’s LMS or SIS, “but in reality, that tends to be true only if our IT department codes the integration,” he says.

“Therefore, my No. 1 question to any provider is if the integration already exists, if it will be developed on their end, or if my team will be responsible for developing custom code to make the solution work.”

At Concordia, the challenges of digital integration are so common that administrators sometimes caution instructors against using more innovative products. “Sometimes we have to make a decision to use a more vanilla solution just to avoid issues,” Bull says.

Completely seamless integration would require collaboration among providers and further development of universal standards, Kessinger says.

“When vendors adhere to sets of standards as opposed to proprietary approaches, it becomes far easier for institutions to adopt their solutions. Our application development resources are extremely limited. Developing custom integrations can be very time-consuming and costly.”

While learning tools interoperability (LTI) standards—which prescribe ways to easily connect learning applications and tools with platforms such as an LMS, and are now in version 1.3—offer a start, they are not expansive enough to include complete integration, Allen says.

Allen envisions new types of learning management systems that could simply serve as ID authenticators and technology integrators, allowing vendors to create unique technologies that all work seamlessly together, without duplicating features such as quizzing, content hosting, grading and analytics.

In addition, he says, “these new systems need to be device agnostic so that students with limited access to laptops or other larger devices can access content wherever they are.”

Nancy Mann Jackson is an Alabama-based writer and frequent contributor to UB.

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